Rebecca Brown

What Keeps Me Here

Harper Collins

          For years I lived with an abusive girlfriend, witnessing her tantrums, her threats of suicide, her violent fits. When I broke up with her last spring, she began to lie, to break things, throw some punches. Nevertheless, for months I returned. So I have what you might call a connoisseur's appreciation for the twisted bonds featured in Rebecca Brown's latest collection, What Keeps Me Here. Ranging in length from two to 20 pages and written in spare prose, these stories are oddly gripping; they traverse an existential landscape, somewhere between allegory and psychological realism.

          Their unifying feature is a claustrophobic engagement, a system of powerful attractions that also repel. Sometimes the relationships portrayed are between people; others are between a person and a thing. In one, a woman sits in a darkened room clutching a paper on which a number is written, waiting to be summoned; and in another, a couple's relationship is disrupted by the fear that there is something in their bed. A third story reveals, through the sexual triangle between a woman, her husband, and her ex-lover, how a longing for truth keeps one engaged: "She tells one version... then a different one... when I ask her, she denies the first... I'm convinced I know the truth of her... what I don't know is why I stay."

          Some publishing insiders are christening Brown--who has published five previous volumes, including the award-winning Gifts of the Body--the next Dorothy Allison, the next "crossover" lesbian writer. Despite the potential for such hype, Brown's work is good, providing reassuring proof that existentialism and literary experiments aren't dead in popular American fiction. These stripped-down tales work because they speak to our foolish human desire to cleave to what we love; they help us to understand what kept us. (E.J. Levy)

Victor Pelevin

Oman Ra

Farrar, Straus, Giroux

          "In ancient times, people could not know that the earth really circles the sun, said the dictionary, and so they invented this poetic myth." So writes Victor Pelevin in this short novel, itself a poetic myth of sorts. The story focuses on the journey to the moon by Oman Ra, a cosmonaut who has been asked to sacrifice his life anonymously on a mission intended to save face for the Soviet space program. Although the "asking" is done with the goad of forced drugging and brainwashing, the story does not sympathize with its protagonist. Oman is too emotionally detached from his situation for it to seem tragic, though he does, at times, seem to yearn for a soul. It is through his sometimes sober, sometimes drugged stream of consciousness that one sees the Soviets' underground astronaut training facilities and learns about the absurd sacrifices demanded by its abusive leaders.

          Is Oman a hero, or is the system he serves just downright evil? He finally experiences a burst of passion in the midst of his mission when Flight Command Leader Khalmuradov chides him for taking too long to make the "final sacrifice," lest it make him late for a tennis match. Oman's fate is unclear, and the reader is left wondering, like the title character himself, what really transpired. Such confusion doesn't signal poor writing, but rather speaks largely of Pelevin's ability to spin a tale rich with meaning and possibilities. (Amanda Ferguson)

Jim DeRogatis

Kaleidoscope Eyes:
Psychedelic Rock From The '60s to the '90s

Citadel Underground

          A recent survey found that the monthly use of hallucinogens by American teens jumped 183 percent between 1992 and 1995--an especially good reason to welcome Kaleidoscope Eyes, Jim DeRogatis's timely retrospective of psychedelia in the world of rock & roll. Beginning with Albert Hoffman's discovery of LSD in a Swiss laboratory in 1943 and ending with the Flaming Lips arguing about hand-clap recordings last year in an Oklahoma City studio, the book covers a sizable chunk of rock history, focusing on music the author defines not as "drug rock" per se, but rather "rock that is inspired by a philosophical approach implied by the literal meanings of [the word] 'psychedelic' as 'mind revealing' and 'soul manifesting.'" By this rubbery yardstick he covers pioneering work from the the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Roky Erickson, P-Funk, and the Velvet Underground; significant footnotes like the Incredible String Band, Hawkwind, and the '70s Krautrock scene (Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!); and modern head-music makers like My Bloody Valentine and The Orb. As a document tracing rock aesthetics informed by a taste for drones, mantra-style repetition, reverb, echo, and cosmic babble, the book is exceptionally well-informed, and its cultural analyses are fleeting but smart.

          Kaleidoscope Eyes plainly shows DeRogatis's biases, which will be no surprise to those who know his work. Pink Floyd and Brian Eno, for instance, each get a chapter, while the Grateful Dead get two paragraphs and a few other potshot mentions. In the end, one wishes the writing could capture more of the feel of hallucinogen-inspired music (DeRogatis declines discussion of personal experience in favor of a mostly third-person approach). But for music fans who want to explore the region where hippies, punks, hip hoppers, and rave kids can sit down and share a spliff together, this is an indispensible guidebook. (Will Hermes)

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